The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Severe drought covers parts of Washington region, but conditions may improve

( <a href="">Antonio Bouza via Flickr</a> )

Spring has sprung, but the Washington region is deprived of water. Drought covers much of the area, and in some places it is severe.

Last week’s winter storm and its messy mix of ice and snow offered some relief, but drought conditions persist.

Much of the region along Interstate 95 and to the west of it is in a moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the weekly assessment from federal agencies. And the zone from roughly Manassas to Fairfax to Rockville is classified as being under a severe drought.

A drought warning is in effect for Central Maryland, including Frederick and Carroll counties, along with portions of Montgomery County (not served by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission public water systems). Water conservation is encouraged in these areas.

A drought watch is in place for much of Northern Virginia except for water systems using the Potomac or Occoquan rivers.

Since late summer, Washington has run up a rainfall deficit of more than 10 inches. In fact, rainfall has fallen short of normal in every single month since last May.

The current month’s rainfall (and melted snow) has been near normal — at just over two inches.

“The good news is that we’re at least getting some regular precipitation now rather than those long, dry stretches,” said Jason Elliott, hydrologist at the National Weather Service office serving the Washington region. “But the deficits still exist.”

Soil moisture, groundwater and stream-flow levels are all below normal throughout the region.

The lack of soil moisture has led to the “poor condition” of some pastureland, the National Weather Service’s latest drought statement said.

Agriculture may be additionally stressed by a premature start to the growing season in February from record-warm temperatures, which was followed by a hard freeze in mid-March. The Weather Service said the freeze “caused some damage to plants,” but it is not know how widespread that is.

Get ready for higher fruit prices — the freeze devastated some crops in the South

Groundwater levels, important for the region’s drinking-water supply, have improved in the past couple of weeks, but they are still depleted in some cases. In particular, certain deep-water aquifers southwest of Washington have not recovered. “There still needs to be some recharge, and that hasn’t happened,” Elliott said. “That’s what I’m keeping the closest eye on.”

Streamflow levels, which are important for the environmental health of streams and rivers, are also improving some but are below normal, “especially farther south and west from D.C.,” the Weather Service’s drought statement said.

The good news is that an active weather pattern over the next one to weeks may help dent the drought and improve some of these indicators.

The National Weather Service is predicting about one to two inches of rain over the next week and favors above-normal precipitation in its 8 to 14 day outlook.

In its seasonal drought outlook, the Weather Service calls for either drought improvement or removal in our region by June 30.

But Elliott cautions that we’re not out of the woods. “Beyond two weeks, the outlooks are not conclusive,” he said. “If we get into another dry stretch again, we may undo things. That’s something we’ll have to keep an eye on.”